Three Killed in 1913 Sewer Incident: Brave Rescue Attempt by Two Firemen ends in Tragedy

Firemen Libby and McLaren

On Tuesday the 18th of March 1913, William Parry a 35-year-old sewer man working for Kensington Borough Council was carrying out some work in a sewer beneath Pembridge Place, Notting Hill. While he was working, he was completely unaware that coal gas from a nearby main had saturated the surrounding ground and was now beginning to seep into the very sewer in which he was working. There were four others working in the sewer that day, four men who were extremely lucky to survive.

Theodore Blakeston, one of the men working in the sewer suddenly realised that three of the others had collapsed, and he was feeling unwell himself. He and another man, Charles Washington, managed somehow to drag two of the unconscious men to the surface, despite themselves suffering from the effects of the coal gas. Once on the surface the incident was reported to the fire brigade who responded immediately.

On arrival Fireman William McLaren of the Manchester Square Fire Station, and Fireman Robert Frederick Libby of Euston found two men lying unconscious by an open manhole. It quickly became apparent that there was still another man below the surface in desperate need of rescue. When volunteers were asked for the two Firemen immediately volunteered to go below ground. Charles Washington, one of the two men who had already helped to drag one of his colleagues out of the sewer, volunteered to go with the two Firemen in order to direct them in the maze of sub-surface tunnels.

Manchester Square Fire Station

The two Firemen donned smoke helmets and made their way into the sewer, one either side of the Charles Washington. Their only means of communicating with the surface was a lifeline, but this turned out to be useless due to the number of corners between their entry point and the location of the stricken workman. They continued through the maze of pipes until they came across the body of William Parry, unconscious but still breathing. By now, McLaren and Libby had sent Washington back to the surface to see if he could sort out the problems with the lifeline, but there was nothing that could be done as it kept snagging in the brickwork at the corners of the tunnel.

Another Fireman, Newbury, who entered the tunnel found McLaren unconscious, he tied a rope around him and tried to drag him to the surface but could not, so he took off his smoke helmet and tried to shout for help. Unfortunately, the gas had now built up to such a level that Newbury was rendered unconscious himself and had to be rescued. Despite the valiant rescue attempts William Parry, William McLaren, and Robert Libby were pronounced dead at the scene. The others who went down into the tunnels that day survived, but all had to be treated in hospital.

Victorian Sewers in London

At the inquest, the coroner recorded that death was due to asphyxiation caused by toxic levels of coal gas that had seeped into the sewer as the result of a leaking gas main. In response to the incident tighter regulations were introduced on the reporting of coal gas leaks in the vicinity of sewers and other underground installations.  

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